It’s likely that Shawnee voters will be asked within the next year to approve a new sales tax of at least one-eighth of a cent dedicated to street maintenance.
By ROXIE HAMMILL
Special to The Star
After several weeks of debate, the Shawnee City Council has decided to vote on the idea at its Feb. 10 regular meeting. Some of the details, however, are yet to be worked out, including what the election timing will be.
The council members, meeting recently in a committee work session, debated the plan as a way to raise money for street repair that is needed but cannot be done under the current budget, said City Manager Carol Gonzales.
The city’s 780 lane miles of streets need about $6.9 million a year for patching and resurfacing, she said. But the city only has $4.1 million in its annual budget. That money comes from the gasoline tax, an impact fee on the landfill and the city general fund, among other things.
Some council members and staff worry that if more money isn’t found, the street repairs will fall further and further behind and it will cost more in the future for their repair. Currently about 12 percent of Shawnee streets are ranked as in “poor” shape or worse, Gonzales said. If no additional funding is found, about a third of the streets will be in poor condition in six years, she said.
Gonzales said there is $39.4 million in needed street repairs now, and that could increase to $54.3 million in six years if the current budgeting is maintained.
The council has been looking at three options for taxing amounts — one-eighth cent, two-eighths and three-eighths. Each eighth of a cent would raise $1.25 million per year. If approved, the tax would last 10 years, from 2015 through 2024.
With the one-eighth-cent tax, the repair work would still lag, according to staff estimates. About a quarter of the city’s street network would be poor or worse six years down the road. A two-eighth-cent tax would keep the city roughly even, and three eighths would boost funding enough so that there would be some money for putting in curbs, gutters and sidewalks on streets that don’t have them, Gonzales said.
But several council members have agonized over the choices because polling shows that voters are solidly against the higher tax amounts and that it might not pass the ballot issue, which is required.
For that reason, the council may also include the popular “parks and pipes” sales tax renewal on the same ballot, even though that tax does not expire for almost two years.
Parks and pipes is a one-eighth-cent sales tax that has been in place for about 15 years. That tax would generate around $650,000 per year and is split between storm water maintenance and parks. City polling indicates that tax is still popular. It has been renewed twice.
Council members at the recent committee meeting spent much time hashing out what election timing and ballot language combination would give the proposed street tax the best chance of passing. Council member Jeff Vaught doubted that a one- or two-eighths cent tax could pass on its own and urged council members to support the two-eighths option, with the street and parks and pipes taxes combined into one question.
“It’s either this or a mill levy increase,” he said. “We can’t afford to kick this can down the road.”
However other council members didn’t agree. Councilman Mickey Sandifer said it might not be worthwhile to pursue two-eighths if polling shows voters won’t approve it. “I’d rather gamble on a sure thing,” he said. Ultimately the committee rejected the two-eighths option, though the entire council could raise it again in February.
The council voted as a committee to recommend a spring mail-in ballot, which will be more expensive than adding it to the November general election ballots, where it may not receive as much attention. The spring option could cost $40,000 or more, depending on the turnout.